Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Crowded Planet: Laos Part 1

A vacation to Laos has become a rite of passage for Thai Peace Corps Volunteers, especially since some of us are situated in a region next to Laos, and are surrounded by people who make our lives infinitely more frustrating by insisting on speaking some form of Lao. A typical conversation of mine with a group at my site goes something like this: I’ll ask a question in Thai, whoever is first to understand what I said will translate this to the rest of the group in Lao (Isaan), then they will confer amongst themselves in Lao, and someone will eventually get back to me in Thai. It’s like the scene in Snatch when he’s negotiating the price of a caravan with gypsies, but without the subtitles. If by some miracle the water and air pollution of my town results in a superpower instead of a tumor, to have subtitles magically scroll across my field of vision at all times would be far better than x-ray vision or shape-shifting.

Three other volunteers and I decided that the end of July would be a good time to take the plunge up North. We’ve gotten enough Lao under our belts to get us from place to place and keep our stomachs full. And of course, we’ve got more vacation time than we know what to do with, and less than six months to use it. The plan was to meet up for my friends’ birthday party in Northern Thailand, then cross the border and spend the next twelve days hitting up the interesting sites in central Laos, eventually crossing through the Northwestern border, returning to Thailand after a boat ride along the Mekong in the Golden Triangle of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. Hopefully we’d get back with some good stories, memories, and an improved ability at speaking Lao in our communities.

My fellow travelers: Gary, Josh, and Chris

Before our trip, we did our best to gather information on where we should go, how much we should expect to pay, and other interesting things to keep an eye out for. Phone calls, emails, and casual conversations with other volunteers who’ve gone before us revealed they either never made the trip or are boldface liars. Misinformation was the theme of our trip, and time and time again, we found ourselves relying on the advice of a PCV who admittedly had not been within miles of the border. Eventually we realized that Laos was a far cry from what anyone or any travel book said it would be, to its credit, I might add.

Speaking of misinformation campaigns, one of my favorite pastimes is checking the US State Department’s website to see if it is safe to leave the house, which unfailingly it is not. Whatever country it is, the US State Dept. advises against going there, usually accompanied by a vague warning of danger. It’s warning to US tourists to Laos was surprisingly mild, saying only, “the Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Laos exercise caution in public places and be alert to their surroundings, since the locations of future incidents are unpredictable.” They forgot to mention not to step in front of moving cars, jump from bridges, or stick your fingers in the electric sockets. Bring plenty of duct tape though.

As you’ll see on the accompanying map, my first stop was to meet up with my fellow travelers at a birthday party in Sakon Nakon. Blessed with a site location next to the border, Chris held hands-down the best PCV party to date, basically turning his house into a karaoke and casino for his neighbors. I mention this party only because one of the gifts he received was a lovely cake brought by a neighbor, with white icing wishing him, “Happy Birthday Christ”.

In a couple days, after working out the inevitable delays with visas, we were in the capital of Laos- Vientiane. Vientiane doesn’t have a whole lot going on, unless you are a sleezy Thai man on vacation. “Sao Vientiane” means woman from Vientiane technically, but really means prostitute, about which the US State Dept warns, “Any foreigner who enters into a sexual relationship with a Lao national may be interrogated, detained, arrested, or jailed. Lao police have confiscated passports and imposed fines of up to $5000 on foreigners who enter into disapproved sexual relationships”.

I did manage to see the second Arc d’ Triumph of my life, possibly exceeding the first in its ridiculousness. At the entrance to my provincial town in Haiti, on a road peppered with potholes and jagged rocks, was an Arc d’ Triumph decorated in neon lights welcoming you to a city frequently without electricity. Laos’ Arc d’ Triumph is the result of tons of unused US concrete sent over to make an airport before the communists won the war. It is a grey, bland monstrosity that actually has a sign at the bottom apologizing for the eyesore.

We rented bikes, adjusting ourselves to using the right side of the road, and spent the day visiting temples and various places of mild interest to us. We were told that there was only one ATM in the entire country and passed at least four on our way to a temple. Our real goal was to make it out into the countryside as quickly as possible and escape Vientiane- a city that is so similar to, and used to be part of Thailand. I stepped into a bookstore to do some research on Laos, and was told that the store had absolutely no books about Laos. How about that! Ten minutes later, the proprietor slipped me a piece of paper with a list of ten Lao history books worth reading. “Where can I get these?” I asked him. “Thailand,” he answered.

One book that was certainly in circulation was Lonely Planet: Laos. On the bus from Vientiane to Vang Vien, every foreigner sat reading his copy, preparing to blaze his own trail through the unexplored backpacker wilderness. Backpackers in Laos are more seasoned, experienced, and rugged than Thai backpackers. Their sense of adventure is more acute, their dreadlocks longer, their tie-dyed shirts more faded, all enabling them to scoff at each other while they all look at the same book, following the same beaten path, all trying to get away from “other falang”.

We entered Vang Vien and stumbled upon a town built for tourists. Situated in a picturesque mountain valley, the town follows the Nam Song River and has become a necessary stop for tourists on their way to Luang Prabang, our next stop. Our first day was spent biking and hiking toward a cave, where we met a young boy willing to take us to see the Buddha image inside. The jagged rocks of the mountainside made biking impossible, and his father watched our bikes as he gave his son an old, weak flashlight connected with a wire to a battery for our trip through the cave.

The walk was not a short one. Carrying a bag filled with a raincoat and my camera, affectionately known by other PCVs as “The Clunker”, my shoulders were tired and I was thinking that this Buddha image damn well better give me enlightenment, having no idea that the bulky picture-taker would soon save our lives.

As we entered the cave, we immediately noticed the temperature dropped by at least ten degrees, cooling us off as we started our descent through the unpredictable passageways of the cave. Our guide, probably no more than twelve years old, had a difficult job of illuminating the way for four people in complete darkness, trying to navigate around holes that seemingly had no bottom. As our guide occasionally pointed out bats, we held on to each others’ shoulders and sent warnings down the line of upcoming jagged rocks and holes, slowly managing our way up and down sets of slippery stairs leading to a Buddha image that managed only to enlighten me that it was one hell of a long way to go to worship an idol. Buddhists have an affinity for placing Buddhas in places that are ridiculously difficult to get to. If there was an active volcano in Laos, there would be a Buddha image in its core.

After we got our fill of the Buddha image, our guide turned to lead our way back out of the cave. Shining his weak flashlight periodically in front of each of us, he managed to get us to a staircase of rock made slick with water cascading down the ancient walls of the cave. He held the flashlight close to the ground in front of the next step in my way, evidently too close, because I slipped and knocked the wire out of the battery and the flashlight went out.

Total darkness.

The boy fiddled uselessly with the battery and flashlight easily twice his age as we exchanged language lessons, each of us learning “Oh Shit” in the other’s native tongue. Feeling our way back out of the cave was not an option- there were holes large enough for two of us that would sent us falling into the depths of the mountain, and waiting for the boy’s father to realize we were lost and then go get another flashlight didn’t sound appealing. The Clunker came to the rescue, or at least the flashlight beam that it, for some reason unknown to me, emits when it focuses in the dark, offering a bleak but manageable light that led us out of the cave.

That was the last cave we visited on our trip to Laos.

Vang Vien is better known for the tubing trip down the Nam Song River, offering a view of clouded mountains and forests, with locals extending long bamboo poles to pull tubers in for a cold refreshment of Beer Lao. After being dropped off a few kilos down the river, we set out on our tubes planning on stopping at each and every chance offered us. The first couple stops were pretty standard- locals making a few dollars buying beer in town and selling it downriver to a bunch of crazy foreigners. We met a man named Kayo, who used to live in my province, and we sat cross-legged, practicing our Lao while we passed around a cup of moonshine his mom made, probably for lack of gasoline. We set off again, regaining our equilibrium on our tubes as Kayo yelled his phone number at us as we followed the current downstream.

Our next stop was on the opposite side of the river, and as we grabbed the ropes thrown our way, falangs were jumping off a ledge on a rope into the river. We threw our tubes onshore and trudged up the muddy ledge to find huts packed with foreigners, a volleyball game in action, and a full bar busily serving drinks to one and all, everyone dancing to music blaring over unseen loudspeakers. MTV Beach House had set up shop long before we had gotten there; some of these people had obviously been there since morning. What kind of dream world had we walked into? After a short respite, we were back on the river with more questions than answers.

The next stop on the paved road “off the beaten track” of Laos is Luang Prabang. The favorite city of the 600 or so French colonials, Luang Prabang used to be the capital of Laos and its southern coast until Thailand gave up all the land from the current Thai border north to the French in exchange for its continued sovereignty. The French changed the capital to Vientiane because Luang Prabang was repeatedly sacked by China and Burma via two major rivers bordering the city. It is a World Heritage Site known for its temples and markets, and is a Mecca for backpackers. The streets of Luang Prabang are lined with stands selling French bread sandwiches. Amounting to little more than a hoagie to you, these were the first real sandwiches most of us had eaten in a year and change. Thais not only dislike bread, they will tell you that they are unable to eat it, so one of our goals of the trip was to photograph a Lao stuffing a hoagie into his mouth and show it around Thailand as proof that, yes, it is physically possible for Asians to eat bread. We failed in this endeavor, and no one at my site believes a word of this story.

Laos had been repeatedly described to us as “Thailand 40 years ago”. Lao culture and Isaan culture are presented by Isaaners as one and the same, but after a trip to Laos, it’s evident how much globalization, Bangkok, and MTV have taken their toll on Thai culture. I was on a bus yesterday sitting next to a young man wearing one glittering half-glove on his left hand, with a T-shirt that read, “REBEL”. On a side note, re-reading that last sentence, when did I start sounding like a grandfather? If I had a cane, I would be shaking it at someone right now, attempting but failing to remove myself from a rocking chair on my front porch, then mumbling to myself about “kids these days” as I succumb to a nap from overexertion. Anyway, one reason we were excited about Laos was because apparently the women wore formal, long skirts (pasins) to the disco and instead of hip-hop there was line dancing. Well, guess what? That rumor turned out to be wrong. In walked woman after woman, short skirt and halter top like their southern neighbors. The initial stage of the evening consisted of slow dancing and line dancing, as advertised. It was very reminiscent of a high school dance, but with the alcohol out in the open. After a few Lao songs, the band stepped offstage, and the hip-hop began. Expecting to be witness to formally-clad women line-dancing, we were immersed in a mob of Laos grinding on each other to Black Eyed Peas singing “My Humps”. Where’s that cane?

The first stage of our trip was following the prepared trail for foreigners to experience Laos, provided conveniently by Lonely Planet and PCVs before us. Other than good coffee, good bread, and bad language proficiency, Laos had been pretty much the same as Thailand. We had purposely made it this far early enough to allow us time to head North, towards the Chinese border, into the mountains and out of cell phone reception, to try to find something uniquely Lao.

The times ahead would include massive flooding, mudslides, deaths, hill tribes, the sweet smell of opium, spiking volleyballs into China, and speedboats down the Mekong back home to what hopefully can’t accurately be called “Lao 40 years from now”.

Stay tuned…

I will have a Flickr page set up as soon as we consolidate our photos from the trip, hopefully with the second installment.

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